Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mystical Manhattan Moment

Yesterday, on a mostly overcast and very humid summer afternoon, something downright mystical occurred on the island of Manhattan. I met a friend and, before we parted, patronized an eatery. One, in fact, that we hadn’t frequented in more than a decade. Time surely does fly. And not because we disapproved of its cuisine or its cleanliness. We just got into an unholy habit of pinching our pennies when we met, and typically called upon pizza places, where we ate a slice or two and saved a few bucks.

Anyway, the establishment was a diner called Joe Junior’s on Third Avenue and 16th Street. In fact, there used to be another place by the same name not too far away. But it recently lost its lease in yet another rapacious landlord situation, which is, sadly, the norm nowadays in New York City. This remaining location was nonetheless just fine. When we ate there in the simpler times of the 1990s, I dubbed the spot the “Jesse Orosco Joe Junior’s,” so as to differentiate it from its namesake to the south, where my friend and I had also enjoyed a few repasts.

Why, you ask, Jesse Orosco? Well, it seems a certain waiter-owner resembled New York Mets, Class of 1986, star reliever Jesse Orosco. And I never in my wildest dreams could have conceived that said person would still be on the premises—and doing what he did more than ten years ago—because there have been oh so many changes in that neck of the woods. Landlords have been running the truly genuine diners out of town, which just cannot afford the astronomical rents. Yuppie foodies, too, who prefer both artifice and paying top dollar for trendy mutations of perfectly fine fare, reign supreme in countless New York neighborhoods.

Sure, Jesse O was a little older—like us all—but as efficient and courteous as I remember him way back when, which seems like only yesterday. Bearing witness to this welcome continuity in a city that’s changed so much was an extraordinary moment for sure. Encountering Jesse O on the scene in a throwback greasy spoon with bona fide diner prices in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan—well, there really are no words. Joe Junior’s burger cost four dollars and change and was the genuine article. My friend and I couldn’t resist the temptation, and we ordered ours medium rare—risky as that sometimes is. They were deliciously raw in spots but no E. coli poisoning—I’m happy to report—more than twenty-four hours later.

Jesse O still laboring at Joe Junior's. Scrumptious hamburgers plucked from an authentic diner menu and, despite its very expensive address, priced accordingly. Now, come on, if yesterday’s culinary experience doesn’t qualify as a mystical one—or, at the very least, near mystical—then I really don’t know what possibly could. I can only say: Long live Joe Junior’s—with its steaks, chops, and seafood—and their ever-dwindling brethren.

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